On November 22, 1963, Dallas was the talk of the world. While riding in an open limo, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as his motorcade passed Dealey Plaza. The event shook the world, with even the Soviet Union playing funeral dirges on state radio.
It’s a rough thing for such an event to be the best-known fact about a major city, one that is currently the country’s eighth largest. And yet, for hundreds of thousands of visitors, a pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza, the famed grassy knoll, and the Sixth Floor Museum is top on a Dallas to-do list. Apparently I am no different.
The Sixth Floor Museum is built – unironically – into the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. It is here, from a corner window perch built of boxes of books, that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots that killed the President and wounded Texas governor John Connally, who was sitting in the seat in front of the Kennedys. The museum, in a series of well-curated exhibits, chronicles the timeline of Kennedy’s Texas trip, the assassination, and the subsequent investigation.
There was initially fear that there would be anti-JFK demonstrations in Dallas, the most conservative (Kennedy was a Democrat) city on the President’s itinerary. Those concerns, though, were largely put to rest as thousands of cheering supporters lined the route of the motorcade, a route that was pre-published to give people the chance to wave at the first couple. In fact, as the motorcade made its way onto Houston Street, mere minutes before the fatal event, Nellie Connally commented, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”
From the sixth floor window, Oswald took aim at the motorcade. His first shot missed, while the second went through President Kennedy and into Governor Connally. A third shot hit the President in the head. (Later analysis of the audio of the event also recorded a fourth shot, apparently fired from the grassy knoll, the area along Dealey Plaza where most of the spectators were. However, no conclusive evidence was ever found of a second shooter.) Kennedy was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital about thirty minutes later.
From the get-go, conspiracy theories abounded, and the Sixth Floor Museum does its best to both acknowledge those and to remain focused on actual evidence collected during the investigation. For starters, no autopsy was conducted on President Kennedy. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, now President Johnson, refused to leave Dallas without Mrs. Kennedy. She, in turn, refused to leave without her husband’s body, so to make sure Johnson was evacuated to safety, the Secret Service physically removed JFK’s body from the hospital. Complicating things even more was the fact that Oswald, who had been arrested within hours of the shooting and with substantial evidence against him, was murdered by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas police station, and on live television no less.
Investigations were plentiful, with numerous Congressional panels added to the “official” inquiries. The results were inconclusive, and even at odds with each other. The best known, the Warren Commission (headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren) concluded that Oswald had acted alone, and that Ruby had likewise acted on his own in killing Oswald. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded a likely conspiracy, though they gave no names of possible conspirators. In 1964, New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury wrote that “the year 2000 will see men still arguing about the President’s death.”
A few things are made crystal clear by a visit to the Sixth Floor Museum. First, the evidence against Oswald, and the likelihood of him being the shooter, was overwhelming. Second, his window had a clear view of the street and the motorcade. Third, the predilection for conspiracy theories is one too alluring for many to ever go away.
Back in Dealey Plaza, I join the groups of visitors to the grassy knoll, looking up at the famous window, and then back at the X in the street marking the spot the President was shot. Other monuments to other, less famous, people line the plaza, but all seem only concerned with Kennedy here.
A couple blocks away is the John F. Kennedy Memorial, a hideous blocky monstrosity that disappoints me and turns me off. But I visit anyway, as do so many others.
In 1963, Dallas was the center of the universe. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was one of those events, much like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 for other generations, that makes the world stop for a moment, and for each person to take stock of exactly where they were when they heard the news. A visit to Dallas would seem incomplete without a somber visit to the spot where it happened.
Thank you to Visit Dallas for sponsoring my admission to the Sixth Floor Museum.
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